Former CU coach Bill McCartney diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Former Colorado football coach, Bill McCartney, talks to the media about the ESPN 30 for 30 program about him and the CU program on Nov. 7.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Bill McCartney is carried off the field after a win against Nebraska in the 1989 season.



More than 20 years after he coached his last game, Bill McCartney is still revered as a legend in Boulder and a fatherly figure to those who played for him at the University of Colorado.

On Monday, the CU community rallied together to send their well wishes to the man they call, “Coach Mac,” as the McCartney family announced he has been diagnosed with late-onset dementia/Alzheimer’s.

Several CU fans reacted to the news on Twitter, message boards and through e-mails to

“Saddened by this news. CU family has McCartney family in their thoughts and prayers,” tweeted @LovelyCorrin.

Greg Moore, a fan of Nebraska — which McCartney singled out as the team he wanted to beat more than any other — sent his well wishes, too.

“Husker fan here … ripped my guts out learning of Coach Mac’s illness,” Moore said in an e-mail. “He is a class act of a man; always will be. Prayers to him, his family and Buff Nation.”

McCartney, who is three weeks away from his 76th birthday, on Aug. 22, coached the Buffs from 1982-94, guiding them to their only national championship in 1990. He took over a struggling program and turned CU into one of the nation’s elite college football teams.

In recent years, he has had trouble with his memory, prompting the McCartney family to make the recent diagnosis public, issuing a statement through CU.

“We would like to share the news that our father, Coach Bill McCartney, has been diagnosed with late-onset dementia/Alzheimer’s. We (his family) have been noticing memory issues for the past few years and he was recently diagnosed. He is receiving treatment and we are hoping this slows the progression of the disease. He is still the same Coach Mac — biking, golfing, supporting the Buffs and being an active member of his Church.

“We are making this public to ask for your understand and patience as we know he frequently runs into fans, friends and former payers. This is a frustrating and confusing disease, and if he appears disconnected or unknowing, please don’t take it personally.

“Please keep Coach Mac in your thoughts and prayers as we navigate through this difficult time.”

Despite the diagnosis, CU athletic director Rick George said McCartney is doing well overall. In fact, the two of them played golf together on Monday.

“He’s still doing great, he’s still Mac,” said George, who worked at CU with McCartney from 1987-91. “He’s vibrant, he looks great, and he’s the same old Mac to me. It’s still great to hear the old stories and we still talk about a lot of CU stuff, even though he’s had some memory lapses.”

McCartney still holds CU records for games coached (153), wins (93) and conference wins (58).

McCartney resurrected a CU program had had produced three consecutive losing seasons before his arrival. CU was just 7-25-1 through McCartney’s first three years, but in 1985, he led them a 7-5 record and their first bowl game in nine years.

CU never again had a losing record under McCartney, and they finished in the top 20 of the Associated Press rankings in each of his last six seasons. In three of those years, the Buffs finished in the top four, including the championship season of 1990.

“We had a special leader in Bill McCartney,” quarterback Charles Johnson (1989-90) told last summer about the 1990 championship team. “He was uncompromising. He was just a special leader. And, he recruited special guys.”

After a rough start to his tenure, McCartney led the Buffs to a 58-11-4 record in his final six seasons.

When he took over, Nebraska and Oklahoma were the juggernauts of the Big Eight Conference. McCartney lost his first four battles with Nebraska and his first seven with Oklahoma.

McCartney’s Buffs finally beat Nebraska in 1986, and beat the Cornhuskers in back to back years in 1989 and 1990. After starting off 0-7 against Oklahoma, McCartney led the Buffs to a 5-0-1 mark against the Sooners in his last six meetings with them.

During his tenure, McCartney recruited many of the greatest players in CU history, including quarterbacks Sal Aunese, Darian Hagan and Kordell Stewart, running backs Eric Bieniemy, JJ Flannigan and Rashaan Salaam, receivers Charles Johnson, Mike Pritchard and Michael Westbrook, linebackers Chad Brown, Greg Biekert, Ted Johnson, Kanavis McGhee and Alfred Williams, defensive backs Deon Figures and Chris Hudson and numerous linemen who went on to play in the NFL.

McCartney was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 and the CU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006. Last fall, ESPN debuted a 30 for 30 special titled, “The Gospel According to Mac,” that profiled not only the 1990 championship team, but McCartney’s life and how his faith shaped him as a man and brought glory to the CU football program.

In recent years, McCartney has been a frequent visitor to CU practices and games. His grandson, Derek McCartney, is a junior outside linebacker for the Buffs.

George said Coach Mac is looking forward to watching Derek play this season and plans to be at all home games, and possibly one or two road games.

“He’ll be at all the games watching Derek and we’ll make sure he has the accommodations that he needs and we’ll still include him in a lot of functions that we do,” George said. “Whatever he’s up for, we want him around and involved as much as possible. We’re going to continue to have Mac as a part of our family.

“He’ll be around a lot. You’ll see him quite a bit.”

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.